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Blame the judges, too

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Waukesha Freeman Page A5 Opinion 11/5/2015

Blame the judges, too

Partisan staff not the only problem with GAB

It appears some compromise was reached in the state Senate on the bill to dismantle the Government Accountability Board. This is good news if the version of the bill passed by the state Assembly is left largely intact.

The Assembly version would split the agency in two. There would be an elections agency and an agency in charge of enforcing ethics rules. The new law would replace the retired judges running the board with equal representation by both parties. It is not, as some have alleged, a power grab by Republicans because Democrats would have equal representation, too.

It looks as though the new ethics board might retain two judges while the elections board would just be the appointments of the two parties. This isn’t the worst compromise but it ignores that the judges running the GAB have been part of the problem.

Contrary to my fellow columnist Mark Belling, I am willing to take current GAB Chairman retired Judge Gerald Nichol at his word that he has been in contact with GAB Executive Director Kevin Kennedy every day.

In interview after interview, Nichol has downplayed the incompetence of the GAB staff, including an audit by the nonpartisan state audit bureau that excoriated the agency. This willful blindness does appear to make him out of touch.

But the reality is Nichol is fully supportive of the GAB’s involvement in the John Doe investigation, the unconstitutional attempt to silence conservative organizations in Wisconsin. He has stated repeatedly that he has no regrets about the GAB’s role.

In an interview by Mike Gousha for “UpFront,” Nichol said, “You know one of the fears you have when you’ve been here, and I’ve been on the GAB from the beginning, so I’ve been there eight years, is money in politics. And when you have these outside groups with scads of money looking to spend it on candidates and on issues, it should be transparent and, uh, people should be accountable and the public should have full knowledge of what’s going on.”

That’s not a functional mission statement, or even within the broad mandate given to the GAB. That’s an ideological mission, contrary to the meaning of the First Amendment to the Constitution which Nichol once swore to uphold.

As a judge, one might have thought that Nichol would be aware of the Supreme Court decision Buckley v. Valeo that delineated between express advocacy of a candidate or political party and issue advocacy, which is not subject to campaign finance law. Nichol, Kennedy, and their henchmen on the GAB ignored this important precedent in order to try to silence conservative groups in advance of the gubernatorial election last year.

We have learned, thanks to the reporting of Matt Kittle of Watchdog.org and the Wall Street Journal, of the partisan inclinations of the GAB staff. One staff member, Shane Falk, even expressed concern that the external communications of the GAB contradicted the statements of the Mary Burke campaign for governor concerning the John Doe investigation.

We’re told that the GAB was necessary because of the infamous “caucus scandal,” the use of legislative staff for political campaign work. However, the lesson of that scandal is that the ordinary channel of having district attorneys investigate did work. Former state Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala was found guilty of using “pay to play” tactics to fund Democrats’ re-election efforts, and the John Doe process wasn’t needed.

So in attempt to create a more vigorous “accountability” board to ferret out political corruption, the Legislature unwittingly created an even worse scandalous beast set to destroy free speech rights while serving partisan Democratic ends.

It’s time the Legislature undid this horrible mistake. The GAB needs to go, and with it the judges that had absolutely no problem with the partisan behavior of the staff. Both the staff and the board of the ironically named Government Accountability Board have been unaccountable too long.

(James Wigderson is a blogger publishing at http://www.wigderson.com and a Waukesha resident. His column runs Thursdays in The Freeman.)

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